Sleep Tight, All Winter Night: Choosing a Winter Sleeping Bag

October 20, 2014
ShutterstockLay out your sleeping bag ahead of time to allow for the down filling to regain the loft it lost while compressed.

If there’s one item of winter gear that merits a splurge, it’s a good sleeping bag. Few things are as luxurious—or as essential for an enjoyable cold-weather camping experience—as a cozy and warm night’s sleep. A winter sleeping bag is a significant financial investment, however, making it all the more important to find the perfect bag for your needs.

How warm?
A subzero sleeping bag is recommended for winter camping in the Northeast, where nighttime temperatures can easily plunge into the single digits or below. As a general rule, a bag rated between minus-10 and minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit will provide adequate insulation for even the coldest Northeast nights. A zero-degree bag will often suffice in less Arctic conditions (especially if you’re a warm sleeper) and can also be used during the cooler shoulder seasons of spring and fall, when a warmer bag would be overkill. On really cold nights, however, you will almost certainly need to layer up inside a zero-degree bag to stay warm.

Down vs. Synthetic
Invest in a down winter sleeping bag if at all possible. A down-filled bag weighs significantly less—often a pound or more—and compresses significantly smaller than a synthetic-filled version, which will consume a huge portion of your backpack even when maximally squashed. Down bags are also a superior long-term investment; they last for decades with little to no loss in warmth. Synthetic bags, on the other hand, typically lose a noticeable amount of loft and warmth after only a season or two of use. The lightest winter bags use high fill-power down, which provides warmth with less weight, but can easily add several hundred dollars to the price tag—worth it only for the most serious winter enthusiast.

Weight and Cost
A typical minus-20 down sleeping bag weighs around 4 pounds with standard-fill down (650 to 700 fill power) and somewhere between 3 to 4 pounds for high-end versions with 800-plus fill power. Synthetic versions often tip the scales at 5 pounds or more. Winter sleeping bags aren’t cheap, especially since the cost of down has spiked in recent years due to soaring demand. Expect to pay $450 to $600 for a typical down bag and $600 to $800-plus for a high fill-power version. Synthetic versions usually run between $300 and $400.

Fit to be Warm
If at all possible, climb inside and test drive a winter bag before you buy. Once cocooned inside, first evaluate the length. Your feet should not push against the end, which compresses the insulation and reduces warmth. Unlike three-season bags, a little extra room in the tail is often desirable in winter bags to provide space for storing clothes or boot liners at night so they’re drier and warmer in the morning. Next, consider the girth of the sleeping bag, the dimensions across your chest and hips. You want the bag to be large enough so that you can move easily inside the bag and wear extra layers comfortably when necessary.

Now evaluate the hood, a crucial component for staying warm. The best hoods fit comfortably and securely around your head, move with you as you turn from side to side, and are easy to loosen and tighten from inside the bag. Lastly, check the neck baffle, another essential element that seals above your shoulders to prevent heat from escaping. Look for neck baffles with easy-to-operate closure systems that make it simple to quickly get out of your bag.

Nice Features
A water-resistant shell fabric helps prevent outside moisture from entering the bag and is useful for guarding against the inevitable frost that will collect inside your tent at night. A compression stuff sack is particularly useful for bulky winter sleeping bags and can save a significant amount of space in your pack. Lastly, look for a stiff layer of fabric alongside the zipper, which greatly helps reduce the amount of time you spend dealing with material snagged in the zipper pull.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.